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Letter to Secretary R. James Nicholson

Location: Unknown

Letter to Secretary R. James Nicholson

August 10, 2005

The Honorable R. James Nicholson
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
810 Vermont Avenue, NW
Washington, D.C. 20420

Dear Secretary Nicholson:

I am writing to express my serious concerns about recent news reports that the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) is reviewing 72,000 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) cases between 1999 and 2004 in which veterans received the maximum amount of disability benefits. This appears to be yet another attempt by the Bush Administration to put roadblocks in front of veterans who are trying to obtain the benefits they earned and deserve.

I first raised this issue with you in a letter dated June 21, 2005. In that letter, I strongly objected to a VA proposal to require a concurring second signature for PTSD cases in which benefits were granted. I was concerned that the VA had no similar plans to examine whether veterans were being unfairly denied PTSD claims and was only interested in determining whether some veterans were getting too much money. While I recognize the budgetary crisis that the VA is facing, it is wrong for the VA to ignore the possibility that many veterans have been unjustly denied their earned benefits.

In your response to my letter dated July 6, 2005, you indicated that VA would not pursue the proposed second signature policy. I was pleased with the change in policy, but I am disturbed that the VA has now chosen to ignore my initial concerns.

According to an August 9, 2005, article in Salon, the VA will review 72,000 cases in which the maximum amount of PTSD disability benefits was awarded because of VA's belief that 2.5% of these cases are "potentially fraudulent." It is inherently unfair to review only cases in which PTSD benefits were granted while ignoring cases in which benefits were denied.

Equally troubling is the message that such a mandatory review of PTSD claims sends to the brave men and women who defended this country. Too many veterans see the VA as a bureaucracy with the singular goal of denying services and benefits to veterans. This recent decision to reopen granted PTSD claims merely serves to promote that impression. It is unconscionable for our government to put the onus on law-abiding veterans to affirmatively demonstrate that they are not engaging in fraud. The process of gathering evidence to prove PTSD disability is extremely time-consuming. It requires the compilation of medical records, military service records, and testimony from other veterans who can attest to a person's combat exposure. I cannot fathom why VA would require veterans to go through this emotionally painful process for a second time.

The VA - and our nation's veterans - would be better served by creating nationwide standards for evaluating PTSD claims. As the Inspector General's report underscored, PTSD is a highly subjective evaluation subject to significant variation. The variation in PTSD ratings across the country may well be the result of a lack of training or standardized practices on the part of the VA, instead of fraud on the part of our nation's veterans.

In order to truly create fairness in the claims system, the VA should concentrate its efforts on reviewing denials of PTSD claims. Without assessing why some PTSD claims are denied, it will be impossible to fully understand how the VA's PTSD rating system can be improved. In any event, any analysis of PTSD claims should not require veterans to readjudicate their claims. The veterans' disability benefits process is already long and arduous. Forcing our nation's veterans to renavigate the system is not only impractical, but it is unfair.

I call on you once again to disavow VA's proposal to reopen claims of veterans who have received PTSD disability benefits.


Barack Obama
United States Senator

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